Helen Chapman and Marcus Johns meet up with the incomparabale Owen Jones for a cup of tea and a chat about his new book, Russell Brand and the next general election
On Tuesday the 18th of November, Owen Jones and Shami Chakrabarti were in discussion at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. We met with Owen just before Of Liberty began. Owen is at first an unassuming character; he is calm, polite and friendly—he even bought us a cup of tea. However, under the gentle façade Owen is as opinionated and passionate as even the most outspoken of characters—Russell Brand, whom he interviewed recently on Guardian Live by the Guardian.
Owen jumped into every topic and question without pause, speaking to us in detail about a range of diverse topics.
On his career
What I’m trying to do with writing is draw attention to issues, causes and people that otherwise are ignored. I’m trying to challenge the establishment and reach out to people to encourage them to oppose injustice and do something about it. That’s always what drives me, that is always what I’m passionate and interested in.
On his new book: ‘The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It’
It’s because, in this country, peoples’ anger is constantly and relentlessly redirected away from the powerful to the people down the street: immigrants, benefit claimers, unemployed people,and public sector workers. I’m trying to address this and shift peoples’ anger as best as I can, away from each other to those in power. So that’s what drove me to do it.
On Russell Brand
The thing about Russell is that he discourages people from voting and I want people to vote. I try to encourage people to vote the best I can. I go to sixth forms and schools a lot where I meet a lot of young people who are disengaged and feel disillusioned. But Russell encourages them to talk about it. So on voting we don’t agree, but it’s good to get a debate going because people are otherwise alienated.
I just think: how many of Russell’s critics are having their articles published on the Facebook walls of working class kids debating issues in the society we live in? Not very many of them. So I find most of his critics just smug, self-satisfied commentators who do nothing to address the cynicism of that debate, but just fuel it.
Young people aren’t voting in large numbers at the moment, not because of Russell—with his silly big hair, but because of people at the top; the way they have behaved has caused young people to feel alienated.
I think we need to deal with that: the issue of who is really responsible for undermining our democracy and people’s faith in it. It’s not Russell, it’s these politicians and they have the cheek, some of them, to suggest it’s because of Russell, which I don’t buy.
Anything that gets people to talk about these issues in our society, anyone who gets them, particularly the young, to do that—I think it’s important. Even if you don’t agree with a lot of what he says that is still a useful contribution.
I was on Radio 4 the other week, we were talking about Russell. Afterwards,they launched a Democracy Week off the back of it. It just goes to show what can come off the back of it. In regard to the criticism of Russell’s wealth—if you’re too poor they accuse you of envy, if you’re too rich they accuse you of hypocrisy, if you’re too young they accuse you of being naïve, if you’re old they call you a dinosaur—you can’t actually win.
On student apathy
I think it is more resignation than apathy. When I meet young people it’s often the case that they are aware of issues that will affect them: they are going to struggle to get a job; punished with debt, if they aspire to get university education; struggle to find an affordable home. Yet they don’t see politics as the route out of it, and it is something that occasionally attacks them. It scrapped the education maintenance allowance and trebled their debt to go to university.
What the Lib Dems did is just so outrageous as they actually inspired lots of young people back in 2010, which seems a bit odd to think now, but they did. They inspired lots of young people for the first time and that was their first taste of democracy. Many of them will never trust a politician ever again; their faith in democracy is so undermined.
Politics needs to be about hope again. It needs to be about offering solutions to people’s everyday problems, communicated in a way that resonates with people and their experiences. We need a more representative parliament. We need politics to reach out to communities again and actually give a voice to those who are otherwise just not given a voice.
All I’d say to students is that politicians would actually like you not to vote because it would stop holding them to account. Students: Use that power of the vote to make your voice heard, to punish politicians when they attack you and to give politicians an incentive to actually win over your support!
But don’t just see democracy as voting every five years: it’s using social media to raise issues; it’s taking to the streets; peaceful civil disobedience; join a political party, trade union, or campaign group. There’s so many different things you can do as well as voting, it is part of it, but you’ve got to see politics as a vehicle which gives you a voice. What it should be about is addressing the issues that affect you and making sure you’re heard—and that’s what we should get back to seeing democracy as again.
On the demonstration for Free Education
It needs to be on table the fact that education is a social need, not a consumer good. We all benefit from it, society is dependent on it at every level. We all depend on having trained teachers and doctors—a whole range of different people who society relies on to function.
For it to be marketised and treated as something for consumers means we need to fight back in a different direction. We need to shift the terms of debate and that is what happens when people protest.
Tax avoidance is on the agenda because people protested about it. So demonstrations do work, they do force politicians to listen. And if people aren’t arguing for that then what’s to stop the politicians going in a direction of constantly increasing fees and adding to people’s debt. If no one’s protesting, if no one’s making their voices heard about this, what’s to stop the politicians?
So we have to keep making our voice heard and make the point that education is a social need, a social good, a social right not simply something that is a consumer good where people are indebted for aspiring to have a better education.
On the 2010 protest against the rise in tuition fees
I think what that did is it solidified a sentiment of public opinion that tuition fees are wrong. If you look at the polls, people don’t support tuition fees. So the ground work is there to actually scrap tuition fees and have an education system as a right again. It’s important to realise with politics that change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a big long running campaign to change things and it can take a while. There’s got to be patience and determination.
But the public mood is with students—people don’t think it’s fair, or right, or just. So people just have to keep pushing in that direction. If you don’t do that, those fees will keep going up for the next generation of students. We shouldn’t be accepting that.
If you don’t protest then that will make sure that nothing will ever change.
On voting for the Green Party
I don’t think any vote is a wasted vote. I think that people should vote based on a whole range of different things, obviously.
The rise of the Greens is partly an expression of frustration at a political system that is rigged in favour of the small elite. It’s an expression of people who want social justice. And it shows the establishment is not offering the inspiring alternative that people want and so people have turned to the Greens.
The Greens only won 1 per cent at the last election and now they are at 8 per cent in some polls, ahead of the Liberal Democrats. It shows that if you are not going to offer a real coherent alternative then obviously people are going to look elsewhere. I share a lot of platforms with Green campaigners like Caroline Lucas who I think is a fantastic campaigner, and they’re pushing ideas and policies which I think are really important.
Labour should not be given an easy ride, making them think they can do what they want and not offer an alternative.The rise of the Greens shows that people will go places elsewhere if they are not inspired, if they don’t feel that the Labour party is doing its job. So it’s a wake up call for Labour.
I don’t know if first past the post will carry on because the selling point for first past the post is that you get stable majority governments. That hasn’t happened with this election and it’s very unlikely it will happen after the next general election either. Politics is fragmenting in all sorts of directions. An electoral system which is designed for a two-party government begins to look a bit silly.
If we end up with proportional representation then it would be a lot easier for parties like the Greens to be able to stand.People won’t have to make that sort of decision without first pas the post at the moment that’s what a lot of people do have to deal with.
On the voting system
A conceivable outcome of the next general election is that the Conservatives could win the most votes, Labour could win the most seats, the Lib Dems could end up with 35 seats whilst UKIP get more votes than them but only end up with three or four seats—I just don’t think that look tenable. There’d have to be another coalition.
We don’t have a precedent for two coalition governments in a row happening in peacetime, so you end up with people then thinking that the electoral system is not sustainable in the long term. People voted against AV because they thought we will end up with permanent coalitions with the Lib Dems at their heart however bad they became. In Germany there’s a sense that whoever you vote for, you’ll always end up with the Liberal/Free Democratic Party in government however low their vote—and you think is that more democratic?
With first past the post, parties can get a minority of the vote but form a majority government. But then in a system with regular coalitions, you could argue, no-one votes for them. They come to power and they say, “all these promises we offered in the election, we have to discard them because we’ve entered a coalition.”
If you end up with coalitions in the first past the post system then you’re under a system that it just not representative. And I think minds will change on that quickly.
I think there’s rampant disillusionment with modern politics and we’ve gone through the longest fall in living standards since the 1870s. We’ve got five million people stuck on social housing waiting lists. We’ve got people who are employed in insecure, low-paid, zero hours work and all the rest of it. The next generation is set to be poorer than the last for the first time in decades. All of that is fuelling a sense of anger and disillusionment and the sense that people’s needs aren’t being addressed.
It’s very easy in that situation to say, “well, hang on a minute, I can’t get a home, why is that immigrant being given a home? I can’t get a council house, but they’re getting a council house. I can’t get a secure job, why are they getting a secure job. My wages are falling maybe because those immigrants being imported to work for less than me.”
You can see why that anti-immigration backlash has really set in. But according to the polls, UKIP voters support public ownership of railways and energy, higher taxes on the rich, more council housing, a high minimum wage. These are mainstream ideas among UKIP voters. I think you can win them over to a progressive argument.
You have to ask who was it that causes the crisis? Was it Polish fruit pickers? Lithuanian nurses? Nigerian cleaners?
Or was it the financial elite? The tax dodgers hoarding money while we all pay our taxes? The cuts in public services? Poverty paying bosses who leave most of their workers in poverty? These are the real villains, and we’ve got to redirect people’s anger.
The political elite is so unpopular, it’s discredited and it’s not answering people’s basic needs. So there’s so much disillusionment and anger that you can see why an enterprising bunch of charlatans like UKIP will come along and exploit it.
We’ve just got to remind people that this anti-establishment party is led by that rare-breed of British politician: a privately educated white man who worked as a city broker. They’re funded by multi-millionaire ex-Tory donors. Their latest two MPs are two privately educated Tory men, one of who worked in the city, the other in asset management. Their policies are privatising the NHS and public services, slashing tax for the rich, attacking worker’s rights. That’s the so called anti-establishment party and we’ve got to expose them for what they are.
But unless, for example, Labour offers an inspiring coherent alternative that answers people’s everyday needs, then no wonder that people are going to end up flocking to UKIP, Greens or the SNP. They just feel that they’re not being listened to and their needs aren’t being addressed. And they’re not.
On Ed Miliband
I think the leadership of Labour as a whole hasn’t really offered an inspiring alternative. If that were true, then they wouldn’t be in this current situation. All political parties are in crisis, true, but Labour often have scattered messages and no overarching inspiring message that resonates with people.
A lot of people aren’t even sure what Labour are offering. There’s a problem here and they’ve started to try and address it in the last week and a half but you can’t just do a big speech and hope it solves everything, you have got to stick with it and have a clear sharp message that you repeat over and over again—that’s what the Tories do actually.
As a whole, of course Labour hasn’t offered what it needs to; obviously they have odds stacked against them because parties rarely go from defeat to government in one term. Labour didn’t just get defeated last time, they suffered their second-worst defeat in the post-war era.
They didn’t rebut the whole lie that the crisis was caused by Labour’s overspending—indeed, the Tories backed their spending pound for pound until the end of 2008—they’re saddled with the image that they trashed the nation’s finances and they’ll do it again. They haven’t challenged it and it’s allowed a lie to become political common sense.
They keep doing odd stuff; they keep attacking their own record in that way, for example in immigration. All that does is make people think, “well, you’re admitting that you were crap on immigration and why should we trust you then?” They’re driving up the agenda something that the Tories and UKIP always seem best suited to address.
They need to offer a message of hope, dealing with the crisis of falling wages, of lack of housing, of lack of secured jobs, of young people facing a future of insecurity and debt and being worse off than their parents. They have to have an inspiring answer to that and they haven’t succeeded yet, and time is running out.
On the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
I don’t believe anything is inevitable. The defenders of any status-quo try to treat injustice like the weather, you can complain about it but there’s nothing you can do about it—I reject that. I don’t think anything like that is inevitable.
Labour have committed to protect the NHS from TTIP. That’s not good enough because TTIP gives multinational companies the same status as nations, and it allows them to sue governments for any actions that may endanger future profits.
It is an assault on democracy. The proposal will end up with secret courts. It’s unaccountable, we don’t even know what the exact proposals are. We do know that they based it on consultations, secret consultations with all these big companies. It’s undemocratic, totally unaccountable and a threat to our democracy. It should be opposed and it should be spoken about loudly. We should never think that these things are inevitable—saying that there’s nothing I can do about it is a short way of making sure they do become inevitable. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On privilege or ‘champagne socialism’
Firstly, The Guardian isn’t a socialist paper, I’m just a socialist who writes for them and the editorial line is liberal, even though people construe it as socialist. It’s a liberal paper and it endorsed the Lib Dems at the 2010 General Election.
There’s a range of people who write for The Guardian but there’s this shtick that if you’re poor, and you believe in social justice, they accuse you of envy and if you’re rich, they accuse you of hypocrisy. There’s this idea that if you’re a socialist you should go and live in a mud hut somewhere and eat berries for a living and if you’re not then you are a champagne socialist, if you have a mobile phone and so on. We live in a capitalist society and it would be rather difficult to avoid it.
Socialism is not about people impoverishing themselves; it’s about making sure rich people pay their taxes. If people call themselves socialist and avoid their taxes, or they send their kids to private school, then that’s hypocritical behaviour.
It’s Victorian philanthropy to suggest that these people should give charitably to these causes, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t do that—but that’s’ the model of 19th century, the rich just give a bit of money here and there to the poor out of their generosity.
The whole point of socialism, or even just social democracy, is that you have public services and a welfare state which are provided on the basis of progressive taxation—the richer you are the more money you pay.
So, that’s what people should advocate in my view. That’s how society will be changed. Not just by bits of charity here and there which aren’t effectual, aren’t effective, and don’t come up with enough money to deal with social problems. As I say, obviously don’t avoid tax or send your kids to private school if you’re going to advocate socialism. But if you’re not living in monk-style poverty and you believe in social justice then the idea you’re a hypocrite is silly.
Russell didn’t have to help the Focus E15 women who were being evicted. He didn’t have to use his profile to support them, but he did. It raises the whole issue of the housing crisis. The idea that he’s a hypocrite because he lives in a big house is wrong—he’s actually doing something, he’s trying to encourage people to fight back and to take on the housing crisis. You should judge people by their record and what they fight for rather than making ad hominem personal attacks. People only do that because they don’t want to talk about the politics, they don’t want to discuss the argument but they want to make it about the person themselves.
On the European Union
In—but it needs to be changed. It needs to be reformed. It needs to be made more democratic. The elements that enforce neo-liberal dogma need to be challenged.
If we want to bring the railways back into public ownership, there’s an EU directive that could prevent that because it enforces competition on the railways—but the British people didn’t vote for that and most people want public ownership of the railways. It’s the same with other things that limit state intervention and promote privatisation of public services.
So it needs to be changed, and it needs reform but it’s frustrating that the arguments for change in the EU have been surrendered to the right and to xenophobes. The left should be on the side of democracy and of challenging any authority that is unaccountable and is helping the interests of the rich—the EU is too like that at the moment. It has to be changed, but it can be changed without us leaving the European Union, of course it can.